The first sign that something strange is going on in Pitch Perfect is when we learn that 27-year-old Anna Kendrick is playing an incoming college freshman. The second is that Kendrick's character, an aspiring DJ named Beca, is considered the "alt-girl" because she has earrings running up her earlobes and wears black nail polish, never mind the fact that she's heavily caked with glamour-girl makeup throughout. But soon enough, we realize that if the film isn't quite in on these jokes, it's hip enough to others, and treats the proceedings with adequate comic distance to enliven an otherwise cliché-ridden tale of girl-bonding and boyfriend-getting set against the exciting world of collegiate a cappella vocalizing.
Adapted from Mickey Rapkin's straightforward exposé about undergraduate singing competitions, the Jason Moore film is more or less successful in inverse proportion to the degree that it plays its material by the book. After being humiliated at the national competition when their rendition of Ace of Base's "The Sign" is punctuated by group leader Aubrey (Anna Camp) nervously staining the Lincoln Center stage with projectile vomit, the Barden Bellas start the next season looking for fresh blood. They assemble a group less cosmetically pleasing than last year's ensemble, but with a wider range of talent, all with the goal of returning to New York to take down their arrogant cross-campus male counterparts. The most talented new member is Beca, who would rather be making electronic mixes in her dorm room or hanging out at the college radio station, but is cajoled into joining the group. She brings fresh energy and ideas to the Bellas, but will she be able to implement any changes over conservative Aubrey's repeated insistence on sticking to the "classics" ("Turn the Beat Around" and the aforementioned Ace of Base song)? Meanwhile, Beca begins making time with the new star of the boys' squad, but will she learn to open up and accept his love?
The answer to both questions is largely irrelevant, the creaky plot mechanics required of the screenplay, between which the film indulges in deliciously tongue-in-cheek bits of business, whether it's the so-blatant-it's-ridiculous misogynistic outbursts of the competition's play-by-play announcer, or the sassy "I'm-overweight-so-what?" pronouncements of the group member who calls herself Fat Amy. This last line of comedy, centered on a vibrant performance by Rebel Wilson, is somewhat questionable in that it approves a stance of empowerment for obese people, but still asks us to enjoy jokes at the character's expense. Also questionable are some of the quick-sketch characterizations of the other members of the group (the ultra-quiet Asian, the lascivious lesbian), but even these are given interesting tweaks that takes them out of the realm of stereotype.
Ultimately, this is less a film about competition and getting boyfriends (though those are two of the key plot devices) than about sisterly bonding and having some good-natured fun. The latter goal is never more pleasurably realized than during film's rousing finale in which the Bellas, finally taking a page from Beca's DJ playbook, perform a mix-tape-style number, the seriousness even here undercut by the off-color commentary of the sexist announcer and the overheated libido of his female counterpart. It's sexy indeed, and also funny, but, as a film that has a character ludicrously work the phrase "a ca" (as in "ppella") into nearly every sentence acknowledges, it won't do to take any of these things so very seriously.